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Under the influence of John Cassavetes.

By Chris Herrington

NOVEMBER 29, 1999: 

The Cassavetes Collection
featuring "A Woman Under the Influence"
Anchor Bay Entertainment

Confession: The greatest experience I’ve ever had watching a film occurred about five years ago at a small repertory theatre in Minneapolis. There I saw John Cassavetes’ galvanizing 1974 masterpiece, A Woman Under the Influence, for the first time. There may be greater films (a few, perhaps), but to be blindsided by this devastating work, in the form in which it was meant to be viewed, was stunning.

In Memphis, with the unfortunate demise of the Brooks film series and the chronic conservatism of The Orpheum’s summer programming, the chance to see exciting cinema of the non-new-release variety is sadly nonexistent. Video, with all of its limitations, has to suffice. Thankfully, A Woman Under the Influence, along with several other Cassavetes films, has been released in a new video version from Anchor Bay.

The late John Cassavetes is often referred to as the father of American independent film, but in an age when the notion of “indie” cinema amounts to a marketing ploy for Hollywood-in-disguise, that title doesn’t do the man justice. His films (only 11 in a 30-year career) remain controversial and widely unseen. He was never a big financial success and hardly a critics’ darling. But his body of work is as important and unique as any other American filmmaker of the last 40 years.

“We’ve got to move beyond the current obsession with technique,” Cassavetes once proclaimed, and it was a rallying cry that distinguishes his films as much from post-modern indies as it does from Hollywood product. If so much of hip cinema seems to be drowning under the weight of its own knowingness, its surfeit of intertextual reference, the work of Cassavetes offers an alternative that is simple, and pure, and powerful. Concerned with the emotional truth of his characters’ lives to the exclusion of all else (from cinematic technique to narrative flow), Cassavetes’ cinema feels improvisational (though it’s thoroughly written), visceral, passionate, suffused with the rawness that only life holds.

And, more than any other American filmmaker, Cassavetes represents the polar opposite of Hollywood escapism. His films blatantly accentuate everything that mainstream fictions aim to conceal. Hollywood films process the world for us: They introduce problems and resolve them; they reach conclusions more tidy than the ones we’re forced to make do with in real life — that’s their appeal. Cassavetes’ films, on the other hand, withhold solutions.

A Woman Under the Influence, starring his wife and muse, Gena Rowlands, in a performance of shattering intensity, is Cassavete’s greatest achievement. As Mabel Longhetti, a housewife with three kids and a loving, brutal, inarticulate husband (long-time Cassavetes collaborator Peter Falk), Rowlands suffers the screen’s most riveting nervous breakdown, but to think it is a film about mental illness (as many, apparently, do) is to completely miss out. What is perhaps both most discomforting and most liberating about A Woman Under the Influence is its rejection of the myth of intent. Mabel is never cured because she is never sick, and who are we, the movie seems to ask, to diagnose or judge? Mabel deals with life as directly and honestly as she can, governed by the unknowable limits of who she is — with her frantic lyricism, her ruthless sweetness, her sudden spells of frankness and lucidity.

Hollywood films feature written characters. They are helped by their authors to be more beautiful, more revealing, more aware than we really are. Cassavetes merely observes flawed, inconsistent behavior, and revels in its honesty. At one point in the film, Mabel stands atop the living room couch and waves her arms like a ballerina. But she’s never proven clinically unstable. They institutionalize her, but nothing is resolved.

Despite claims for A Woman Under the Influence as a feminist manifesto, or any counter charges of political incorrectness often leveled at more problematic Cassavetes works like Husbands (misogynist) or The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (patriarchal), the truth is that Cassavetes films are not intellectual or analytical works, they are purely emotional, purely visceral. Like few other films, A Woman Under the Influence is governed exclusively by the internal logic of the its drama and by the reality of its characters, so much so that it almost obliterates any feeling of authorial control. For a while, the only things that exist are the moments of high drama and utter triviality that exist on the screen. All that endures is the truth of Mabel and Nick Longhetti’s imperfectly beautiful lives — the way they work and grouse and care — and, helplessly, love.

Ordering information: Anchor Bay, 1-800-745-1145.

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